Are online strategy games good for my brain?

We pick apart some of the latest neuroscience news with the help of local experts...
20 April 2020

Interview with 

Duncan Astle, Cambridge University; Helen Keyes, Anglia Ruskin University


An Xbox controller.


We pick apart some of the latest neuroscience news with the help of local experts, cognitive neuroscientist Duncan Astle and perceptual psychologist Helen Keyes. First up, Helen looked at a paper this month about how, she says, playing video games can turn you into a super-perceiver!

Helen - Many millions of us play action, real-time strategy games. People who play these games often play them for quite sustained amounts of time and there's growing evidence really that playing these games can really be very beneficial for your cognitive function. So there are many cognitive benefits associated in general with playing action video games. It improves our hand eye coordination, our visual processing. It makes people better at detecting fast moving objects and identifying stimuli in your peripheral vision. So there's really a wealth of these processing benefits to action video games. But this study wanted to look at the effects of what we call action, real-time strategy games. So these are games that involve a lot of fast-paced action but also involve the player making real-time strategic decisions very quickly. The authors were hypothesizing that this type of gaming would benefit not only your spacial attention skills but what we call your temporal visual attention. So that is the idea that you might be able to perceive and process information more quickly than non video game players. And to do this, the authors used what we call an attentional blink task. So attentional blink happens to us all. If we're processing one thing and we are presented with something else really quickly after that, about 200 to 500 milliseconds after that, you just can't really process it. We call it an attentional blink. Your brain is basically blinking, processing the first thing. So this study was using the attentional blink task to look at whether people who were really masters at playing these action strategy games, whether they suffered less from this attentional blink.

They looked at 19 players who were in the top 7% of players worldwide on the leaderboards. They compared these people to 19 other League of Legends players, video game players, but these were non-experts: so they'd only been playing for less than six months and the rankings weren't very high. They presented all of these people with attentional blink tasks, so a series of numbers or letters where your job as the participant would be to identify when a target letter came up. So the letter D for example, you'd have to respond to that if it came up. They presented you with these tasks. If I was attentionally blinking, I'd miss the second stimulus. And while they were doing that, they recorded EEG. So as we know, EEG records the electrical activity in your brain and is really good at tying down exactly when your brain responds to something. And they found that expert video game players suffered less from attentional blink than non-experts. That is, they recognized more of these second targets: they were blinking less attentionally. And interestingly, this was also reflected in their brain activity. So their response, what we call their P3 response in their brain, which is a response that happens about 200 to 500 milliseconds after you see something, that response to the second target was much quicker in expert video game players and it was stronger as well, it was bigger.

This suggests that not only can expert video players respond more quickly to targets, but that they have more attentional resources available to make decisions in rapid succession. So these expert video game players were able to make a quick decision, identify a target, and then make another decision really quickly after that because they'd practiced this skill quite a lot. During the pandemic lots of us will be playing more video games than usual. So it's good to know that we can do so guilt-free because we are really just developing our cognitive skills. But it's a nice answer to the moral panic that sometimes is associated with this extensive video game playing.

Katie - To hear that there are cognitive benefits to gaming is really exciting. I'm wondering where the catch is in terms of people who do suffer from gaming, do you know if there's any evidence to suggest that people who game too much have any cognitive disadvantages?

Helen - Well you've hit the nail on the head in that most of the downsides associated with extensive game-playing are behavioral kind of social downsides. When, when it comes to the cognitive downsides, there really haven't been many that have been documented. So when we look at large scale meta-analyses of a video game playing and their effects on your cognitive skills, people have either found no effect or a positive effect. So there aren't really any suggestions that this can be bad for your cognitive processing. But of course other types of social scientists would look at this from a different perspective. Looking at, you know, how much time you're spending gaming and how that may be affecting your social skills. That's certainly not my area of psychology, so I wouldn't want to comment on that. But in terms of the cognitive effects, it seems to be pretty much all roses.


As you're listening to someone talking, the theory is that your brain is making moment by moment predictions about what word is coming…. next. But what is the brain making predictions about? Individual words, categories of words? This is precisely the question posed in the paper that Cambridge University's Duncan Astle looked into this month, and he told Katie Haylor about it.

Duncan - So what the authors did is they placed subjects in an MEG scanner or a magnetoencephalography scanner, which is a type of brain imaging that's very quick and rapid. And then they played them different types of sentences. So the sentences could be things like... could have the phrase in them 'such and such they cautioned the...' and then you're expecting a word at the end. And because of the type of verb that it contains, so 'cautions', you expect that the word that's coming is animate in some way. So it could be like a person's title or you know, 'they cautioned the man', 'they cautioned the woman', those sorts of sentences contrasted with sentences like 'they caught the,' it'd be more likely to have something like 'they caught the ball'. And so subjects would be sitting inside the MEG scanner as they heard these different sentences. And in that moment, that split second after the verb, so after 'cautioned' or 'caught' and before the final noun arrives before the final kind of naming word at the end of the sentence, they wanted to see what is the brain predicting. Is it able to predict that the final word is going to be animate like man or woman? Or is it going to able to predict that it's going to be inanimate, like ball? Or does it make no prediction whatsoever? So that's what they really wanted to know. And what they were able to show is that in that split second, the brain is making a prediction that is specific to whether it's an animate word that it's expecting to come next, or an inanimate word that it's expecting to come next. But it's not able to make a prediction about more specifically what word is coming next, which suggests in that moment what's being made is a very course, general prediction that takes into account the kind of semantic properties of the word that it's expecting next, but it's not as specific as an individual lexical item that's coming next.

Katie - Do we know why this might be important?

Duncan - Language is incredibly rapid and dynamic, and if our brain is constantly just reacting to what it hears in a passive way, that's an incredibly inefficient way of doing it. So for instance if your brain makes no predictions and it just waits for words to arrive at it and then it tries to decipher what they mean, every time it's kind of starting an exhaustive search of all the words it knows to see which one matches what you've just heard. Whereas if you can make a prediction about what words are coming next, then in a way you're narrowing down massively the kind of repertoire of words you're going to have to access when that word arrives. And the more you can narrow it down, the better your prediction is, the more quickly and the more rapidly you can process the information. And ultimately that's how you and I are able to kind of maintain rapid conversations because our brains aren't just sort of passively waiting for what's coming next. They're actually making a dynamic prediction about what's coming next and that's how they're able to respond so quickly.

Katie - How significant do you think this is in terms of our understanding of how language works?

Duncan - I think it is significant in the sense that there are various very contentious debates about what the brain is doing in a moment by moment sense. But actually lots of the neuroscience or the neuroimaging measures that we use are super slow, right? So we often talk about FMRI and you see these pictures of people's brains with colourful blobs in them. Those are all usually gathered over the order of seconds, right? And so you've got no way of knowing whether the information that that reflects is something that the brain was predicting, or the brain was responding to, or a combination of the two. And the really nice thing about this study is because they are using magnetoencephalography and then they repeat it again with another technique called electroencephalography - which is electrodes stuck on the side of the head - and they show exactly the same effect, because they are using those sorts of rapid new imaging technologies it really enables them to say actually it's a prediction that the brain is making. I think that's what's really nice about this study.


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